‘In the past politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this, but their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered their people. Those dreams failed, and today people have lost faith in ideologies. Increasingly, politicians are seen simply as managers of public life, but now, they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us—from nightmares.’
The above quotation is from Adam Curtis’ documentary series, The Power of Nightmares. In the next line Curtis states that politicians:
‘Say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand.’
Given the context of this document, you would be forgiven for thinking that The Power of Nightmares is a documentary criticising the political response to COVID-19. It is not. Produced in the aftermath of September 11th, it is actually about the nightmare of international terrorism. On a deeper level however, Curtis’ work is about COVID-19. It is about financial crises, drug trafficking and violent crime too. If we look beyond his specific example, it is about all claims that the state is the sole entity capable of protecting us from such evils.
In 2020, the announcement of a pandemic saw the implications of this claim manifest in the most pronounced and consequential manner since the Second World War. Politicians around the world insisted that they needed to restrict human freedom and mandate medical interventions—all in order to keep us safe. They had the power and claimed the wisdom to know this was the right thing to do. Much of the population agreed, yearning only for stronger restrictions on their liberty.
The human cost of these policies has been as horrendous as it was predictable—a fact not even their most ardent defenders can seriously contest. We’ve witnessed the closing down of businesses, the coercion of medical treatments, the loss of jobs, the separation of families, elderly people dying alone in care homes and starvation levels increasing around the world. For this, we have been landed with a bill that we will be paying off for generations to come.
Yet much like the Great Wars of the 20th century, the argument goes that if the state hadn’t intervened the situation would have been much worse. The implementation of these draconian measures means that millions of people are now alive who otherwise wouldn’t have been. However brutal, the price was worth it.
Is this position defensible? Were any of the state mandates actually justified, even given the limited information available at the time? With hindsight, were they beneficial, or did they end up making matters worse? If they did worsen the situation, are there a different set of general principles that politicians could be guided by when future nightmares arise? These are the questions this document seeks to address.
‘It’s quite possible that another virus comes along that’s got a 10% mortality rate…Just imagine we had a virus that was selectively killing children because of their immune naivety. That is medically possible. If that happened, then all of these measures [emergency vaccines and lockdowns] could be completely justified… We could be in a situation where these things are actually completely necessary.’
Dr. John Campbell1
In 1958 Mao Tse-Tung initiated a campaign to eliminate all the sparrows from China. The reasoning ran that sparrows consumed grain, several pounds of it per bird per year, and this grain would be better used feeding the Chinese people.2
Millions of people collaborated to destroy nests, break eggs and shoot the birds from the sky. They would even bang pots and pans to prevent the sparrows from resting, causing them to drop dead from exhaustion. This may sound cruel, but as China had regularly suffered with famines throughout her history, grain provision was literally a matter of life or death for millions of people.
The plan was an overwhelming success, pushing the sparrow population to near extinction in China. This endeavour could be taken as a shining example of the necessity of state central planning. It would have been utterly futile for individual farmers to attempt to organise such a program themselves. Success depended on a top down, coordinated, authoritarian approach.
At least that’s how we might remember it, had it not gone so horribly wrong.
In addition to grain, sparrows eat locusts, and in their absence the insect population exploded. Locusts ravaged crops across China and contributed to perhaps the greatest famine in human history.
Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ has become synonymous with hubris. It is the most cataclysmic example of communist ‘central’ planning. Such actions are not confined to communist states however, the United States use of DDT to eliminate mosquitoes also had horrendous unintended consequences.3
In the COVID-19 era we have heard much regarding the necessity of government action, often with criticism levied at governments who failed to take the bold and necessary steps to get the virus under control and save lives. This document has made the case that this is not true, that the actions of governments around the world were counterproductive, costing many lives whilst not demonstrably saving any.
The conflict that has arisen in society over approaches to COVID-19 could ultimately be thought of as a collision between two diametrically opposed worldviews. These worldviews have always existed in society, in perpetual conflict with each other, with COVID simply bringing it to a head.
The first view contends that certain challenges exceed society’s capacity to handle in a consensual, decentralised manner. A top down, centralised, authoritarian approach is required. One where people are told what to do and what is best for them by state appointed experts. Opinion contradicting these experts, irrespective of its source, is to be disregarded. Dissent is not to be tolerated. Refusal to go along with the chosen plans results in sanctions up to and include jail time.
This is the view that allowed New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to claim that her government would ‘continue to be your single source of truth’,4 or Dr. Anthony Fauci to declare an attack on him was an attack on science itself.5 It is the view that allowed a nasty aura to infect our societies, of recrimination for anyone not going along with the latest ‘science’, and for a moral self righteousness to take hold. We saw a rise of support for the kind of superstitious thinking that many of us felt had been discarded in the Middle Ages.6
The second view stands in complete contrast to this. It sees society as a complex, self organising system governed by economic laws as solid as the ones of physics. This approach emphasises pluralism, respect for individual rights and emphasises the limits of knowledge and the need to experiment with many different approaches to complex problems. It recognises that the world does not stand still in order for us to measure it, but rather adapts in unpredictable ways to each intervention we make.
The 20th century saw a competition between these two worldviews play out. The Soviet Union and China embodied authoritarian central planning, whilst what we loosely call ‘the West’ embraced a more decentralised market based approach. For all the imperfections in the way it was embodied, the latter of these two ideologies overwhelmingly won out. Perhaps it did so however, only to then be discarded in favour of the former.
The reasons for the failure of ‘central’ planning are not a mystery: an authoritarian top down approach, which eschews pluralism in favour of ‘one size fits all’ thinking, can simply not hold up in the complexity of the world we encounter. A world where answers to complex problems are not obvious, where even the most intelligent people get stuck inside their own perspectives, unable to see another point of view.
States are not inherently virtuous incorruptible institutions that rise above the petty concerns of mere private citizens. They are just as subject to ideological capture as any other institution. They do not have a golden path to truth which makes them inherently more reliable. What they do have, is a limitless supply of funds and the ability to impose their will. This should not be conflated with wisdom.
The unprecedented cataclysm of the Four Pest Campaign did not cause the Chinese Communist Party to doubt the wisdom of authoritarian central planning. Instead, they concluded that they’d simply got the pest wrong, and swapped sparrows for bed bugs. As the quotation at the beginning of this chapter from Dr. John Campbell illustrates, there is a common sentiment that the underpinning philosophy of our approach to COVID-19 was correct, and only the application was wrong. In a future more deadly pandemic, such an approach may indeed be necessary. Beyond all criticism of the science and data, it is this philosophy we request justifies itself.
Let us take Dr. Campbell’s challenge: what if a virus came along that did kill one in ten people, or children, or one in ten children? Would authoritarian state central planning then be the best approach?
To say the least, it is simply not clear that this is the case. Mitigation efforts would themselves be dangerous, making an accurate estimation of viral dangers difficult. Vested interests would still seek to profit, by capturing state regulatory institutions and twisting the scientific underpinning of approaches. If no treatment presented itself, the situation could go on for a long time, the economic impacts would then also cost lives, it would therefore be better to allow society to self organise around protecting the vulnerable. There would also be no way to compare different approaches and judge which gave the best results. Finally, it must be recognised that it is impossible to create a perfect world where no one dies, pursuing such a utopia will invariably just lead to more death.
China’s cruel fate was not set in stone. In 1956, Mao Tse-Tung pursued a policy of letting ‘a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.’ The following year it was revealed as a trap; with the dissidents now identified, Mao launched a harsh crackdown.
If a thousand flowers had bloomed in China, if decentralisation had been embraced, the country need not have experienced the horrors of famine, cultural revolution and persistent poverty for decades to come. What would have been the result of a thousand flowers blooming during COVID-19, if states had not mandated behaviour? It is clear we would have avoided the iatrogenic deaths, the pseudoscience of masking, the inhuman consequences and economic destruction of lockdowns and the harms of vaccines. We would also have avoided the divisiveness that crept into our societies, turning us against each other. As this document has attempted to demonstrate, it is not clear we would have suffered any ill consequences at all.
To revisit the Adam Curtis quotation that opened this essay then: it seems clear that not only can politicians not deliver dreams, neither can they protect us from nightmares. Their efforts to do so only make matters worse, taking what is essentially a fantasy and turning it into a real life horror. This essay is dedicated to those who seek to awaken from both dreams and nightmares, and meet the world as it is.